Another side of the residential school narrative
I received many insightful responses to The Vancouver Sun article on the rising number of Canadian aboriginals entering the Christian clergy, including North Vancouver’s Rev. Rennie Nahanee (with video).
Most readers seem amazed that two out of three Canadian aboriginals continue to express affiliation with Catholic and Protestant churches even after the legacy of residential schools.
But others pointed out just how inter-linked indigenous people have long been with Canadian churches.
Their perspectives counter the dominant narrative across Canada, which paints church-run residential schools as completely abusive and evil. They were more multi-faceted than that.
The first excerpt is from Prof. John Stackhouse, formerly of Vancouver’s Regent College and now at Crandall University in New Brunswick. The second is a daughter’s reflections on the amazing lives of her missionary grandparents.
From Prof. Stackhouse:
Twenty years ago I wrote a piece for the Globe called “Native Religion? It’s Christianity” — based on the 1991 census.
Ten years later, and twenty years later, aboriginal identification with Christianity is higher than that of the Canadian population at large, with “native spirituality” the self-identification of very few–as your Census data shows.
I have often raised this set of data in courses in which students are wondering about Christianity as the “white man’s religion” (which, since the mid-1980s, is no longer true. Since then there are more non-Caucasian Christians than Caucasian… and more women than men – a much older proportion).
I’m hoping also that in the next decade we Canadians might finally have a proper conversation about the residential schools, as in
(a) all the good that they did do, despite the abuse and despite the inherent problems;
(b) what were the actual options in the 19th and 20th centuries that would have helped aboriginal peoples better prepare for the tide of modern Western civilization sweeping around the world ( = globalization, modernization)? I ask that especially noting that most of the African leaders who led their countries out of colonization were trained in mission ( = residential) schools;
(c) who owes what to whom, and what we all as Canadians practically can do going forward in justice and neighbourly cooperation. But I fear we’re at least 10 years away from that — do you?
Here is a fascinating and wise family memoir from Carol Jones, a Vancouver architect who describes her missionary grandparent’s impressive work with Canada’s indigenous people:
I was pleased to read that Rennie Nahanee suggests that some good things happened in some residential schools.
Your article has inspired me to write in defense of the missionaries, ministers and lay people who were NOT part of the mistreatment of First Nations children. An example is my Grandfather and Grandmother, who dedicated their lives to the welfare of these children.
My Grandfather, Rev. Joseph Jones, as a theology student in Winnipeg, recognized his calling and spent the years between 1910 and 1950 in service to Indian (as they were called then) communities in Northern Manitoba and BC.
He realized that hunting and trapping alone would not sustain growing communities and encouraged parents to allow their children to attend schools where they could acquire skills and trades to compete in a wider world. No other pressure was applied by him.
My aunts and uncles, who grew up with these children, remember halls ringing with laughter and song, sports and games being played outdoors. My Grandmother taught award-winning choirs, in Cree, and my Grandfather taught sports and track and field, sending one runner to the Stockholm Olympics.
My Grandfather’s “flock” consisted of communities spread out over Northern Manitoba, accessible only by canoe in summer and dog team in winter. In addition to his ministry, he was doctor, dentist, builder, dog trainer, farmer and carpenter. Theirs was a life of deprivation and hardship and they regarded it as a privilege. Their last posting was to Ahouset, on the BC coast.
Yes, he designed, built and administered residential schools but there were no abuses on his watch. In fact, the children they taught maintained contact with my Grandparents long after their retirement, through letters and visits.
I recently compiled a memoir of my Grandfather’s life, just for family members, and his admiration for and dedication to his Indian people shines through in every story. They loved those children and would be horrified to hear the blanket condemnation that is so prevalent today.
I certainly don’t mean to diminish the shameful abuses that occurred in some schools and communities. I just want to suggest that it’s unfair to assume that they were universal attitudes and actions.
My Grandfather can’t be the only one who didn’t fit the profile being described by so many today.
I would like to meet or speak with Mr. Nahanee, if there is any interest on his part. He might be enjoy some of the many stories that my grandfather left us.